from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Trade Union Federation to Split

March 10, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a federation of labor unions, played a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid. It provided much of the personnel that mobilized voters for the African National Congress (ANC) from the country‘s first “all-race” elections in 1994 up to now. COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the ANC form the coalition that governs the country. COSATU and SACP contest elections as part of the ANC.

Conventional wisdom holds that the leadership of COSATU is increasingly distant from the laboring and unemployed masses, just as is President Jacob Zuma and the top ANC political leadership. (Unemployment in South Africa is variously estimated in the range of 25 to 50 percent, depending on the demographic.) The unions that make up COSATU are increasingly white-collar and based in the public sector, rather than blue-collar employees of private enterprises.

By and large, the unions do not advocate low-wage, low skill policies that might reduce the very high levels of unemployment that drive poverty. COSATU is internally divided because of personal rivalries, but also over principle. The most salient division of the latter is between those in the federation that want closer ties to the ANC and SACP political leadership, and those who want to maintain greater distance. In general, those who favor distance want a more radical and aggressive labor movement. Here, as is often true elsewhere in South Africa, the SACP and the ANC political leadership are essentially conservative in outlook.

Zwelinzima Vavi, a former General Secretary of COSATU who lost an internal power struggle and was fired in 2014, has announced that he will lead a “workers summit” in March, to be followed by the organization of a new federation in May that will rival COSATU. According to the media, current COSATU affiliates that are likely to join the new federation include the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)--usually identified as the largest and richest trade union, the Food and Allied Workers Union, the South African Football Players Union, and the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa.

Vavi is saying that the new labor federation will not be affiliated with any political party. However, there has been speculation that a new, “responsible” left-wing party based on trade unions such as NUMSA, will emerge before the national elections of 2019. It would challenge the ANC and also the Economic Freedom Fighters—a radical party that on occasion uses non-democratic methods, such as the disruption of the sitting of parliament. A new labor federation might generate such a “left-wing but responsible” political party.

The emergence of two, rival labor federations at best will contribute to the general opening up of South African political life, so long dominated by the ANC and the politics of racial identity. However, it could also result in more labor militancy with consequences difficult to foretell.

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